Kaylin Marcotte: Founder & CEO of JIGGY Puzzles – Ep. 112


Kaylin Marcotte is the CEO and founder of JIGGY Puzzles—sustainable, artistic, bespoke jigsaw puzzles sweeping the world.

Kaylin took her unlikely passion and turned it into a multi-million dollar business.

What was her brilliant idea, that got her 500k in funding from Mark Cuban on Shark Tank? If you guessed “boutique jigsaw puzzles”, you are correct!

We’ll learn how Kaylin made a series of super smart decisions at exactly the right time to catapult her business forward during the pandemic, a time that saw many businesses close their doors.

Her story represents everything that I love and value on this show, so buckle up for a great conversation full of inspiration and laughy-laughy good times.

Full Unedited Audio Conversation:

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Using Puzzles To Combat Stress

*2:17 – “The company launched in 2019, but the story kind of started five years before that. I started a new job, I joined an early start-up media company called theSkimm, and I met the co-founders, I was their first employee. So it was just like the super grittiest, meaty days, ton of responsibility and total creativity, which was awesome, but also all consuming. Screens all day long, really kind of that first start-up experience and the pace and everything. So burning out and was looking for just a way to unplug. I would be on my phone and computer all day and then come home and turn on the TV and I was like, ‘This is more of the same and I don’t feel relaxed.’ And so I had done puzzles as a kid. I wasn’t a fanatic, but my family loved like game nights and puzzles. So certainly had done them. And I kind of just randomly had one lying around, did a puzzle, and it clicked immediately. It was very stress relieving and meditative for me. I think just the one-track mind focus on this task in front of me totally forgot all the pings, notifications, stimuli, quieted my mind. And so I started doing a 1000-piece puzzle pretty much every week.”

3:55 – “I became the puzzle girl. I posted all my completed ones just on like my Instagram and all my friends were like, ‘Wow, Kaylin is really into puzzles,’ but I was doing a 1000-piece puzzle a week and so I was always looking for more, buying more, shopping online, going to toy stores, and all the ones I could find were like grandmas’ puzzles: super outdated, cheesy stock photography, same two-part box. And so the idea that planted was just ‘How could these be better? What if I got to dream up a puzzle? What would I want to be different about the experience?’”

On Being Permanently Attached To A Screen

*5:16 – (Ross) “This is by no means a new thought but there is this thing that, we work all day – I certainly do this – I have a digital marketing agency, and the start-up that you’re talking about is my own company and I’m working 14 hours a day on a computer. Terrible things, getting tendinitis in my arm, typing, typing, typing, computer screen, computer screen, and then afterwards you go home and then you say, I’m going to watch a bigger screen for a little while. And that’s my relaxation. But oh, we don’t stop there because you have to have your littlest screen in your hand while you’re watching the biggest. I’m scrolling through Reddit while I’ve got a movie on half-paying attention and you say, ‘What am I doing?’ And then a friend says, ‘Hey, you need to get a Nintendo switch because video games are a way to relax.’ I say, ‘I don’t think I need to inject yet another screen into my life.’ So I love the idea of doing anything that gets us away from those notifications and the pings and the dings of Slack and mail and messages and teams and all of that stuff. So super cool.”

6:18 – “I tried yoga and meditation apps and just nothing stuck And then it was almost had the opposite effect of I’m like, ‘Why aren’t I relaxed? Isn’t this supposed to be calming? Why am I not? What’s wrong with me? Am I too Type A for yoga? What’s happening?’ And so I think with a puzzle – and it is funny to see who like is attracted to puzzles – I think there is something about being, not necessarily a Type A, but like a very goal-oriented person of, ‘I want to relax, but I also want to see progress and I want there to be a right answer. And I want the pieces to fit.’ So it really achieved, it was what I needed to actually kind of mentally check out to still have a task at hand.”

7:15 – “I was known as the Rubik’s Cube guy in high school. So the same thing happened with me, I had a bad knee injury…and I was in a machine that bent and straightened my leg just over and over again for 10 hours a day. And this was pre-Internet as we know it today. So I was watching TV and movies all day and at a certain point I went insane. I just couldn’t handle watching another TV show, another movie. So I looked for anything around me. And kind of similar to your story, my dad had a junk drawer with all this crap and in it was a Rubik’s Cube from 1980-something. And I have always loved puzzles. I was always able to solve any puzzle that was ever given to me…So I was like, ‘I’ll solve this Rubik’s Cube.’ And then I just couldn’t. And then it drove me insane that I couldn’t solve it so I got a pen and paper and I worked it out and I had this little guide, but it wasn’t a solution until I finally solved it after weeks or whatever. And then I became a competitive speed cuber…But it’s the same kind of thing where I would bring this cube and sheets of algorithms with me to class every day at school. And it’s like ‘I need to get better at this. But also there needs to be a solution and it needs to be very clear.’ And it is a cube. It’s just not two dimensional, but the idea is very much the same. And to this day I think of it as a Zen kind of practice as well, because it doesn’t require batteries. You can take it with you, you can do it camping, you can do it literally anywhere.”

10:22 “I actually have a friend who tragically she lost both of her parents in a very short span and so works with a grief community and they’ve recommended puzzles as a way to almost like, in a healthy way versus a destructive behavior, kind of distract yourself from your thoughts and help pass the time a bit. We heard from customers during COVID who were quarantining alone and experiencing a lot of loneliness that a way to pass time healthily, productively, but that was an escape from your own thoughts, was something that was helpful for them. So yeah, it’s interesting and very rewarding to see all the ways that having a habit or a practice like that can impact people.”

On Improving The Puzzle Experience

*12:12 – “It started with just, ‘I want a better puzzle experience.’ And so, okay, what are the layers of that? One being the art itself. So I remember when I finally was like, ‘I need to do something about this.’ It was like a stock photography that was kind of etched, illustrated of a bunch of fishing tackle and it was just like fishing rods and wires and hooks and bait just splayed out on a table. And I was like, ‘I’m spending 12 hours with this image. I am immersed in this image for hours upon hours and like, I don’t want to look at this.’ And so prompt number one was the art itself. And how do I create a puzzle that you want to immerse yourself in and are drawn to and enjoy studying every detail as you look at every piece?”

13:18 – “I grew up in L.A. My mom founded an arts non-profit when I was a kid, and so I just grew up surrounded by the art community and saw not only, one, how much amazing talent there is out there and how much incredible work there would be to source from but, two, how hard it is to monetize…’A ha’ moment number one with was bringing those two passions together and deciding that the model with Jiggy would be partnering with licensing from emerging artists and doing a profit-sharing model so they get a percentage of every sale.”

14:22 – “Pain point two for my puzzle experience was what do I do with this thing once it’s done? You spend so much time putting it together and then completed jigsaw puzzles are pretty large. They’re like 18-24 inches. You essentially have a print. You have an art print of this work. I was too sentimental to tear it apart right away. So I would just stack them on top of each other completed and slide it under my couch. But the thinking was, ‘Wait a second. The whole point is we’re actually making beautiful puzzles with these artists’ original work.’ So the idea for puzzle glue and to basically turn each Jiggy into a puzzle kit that includes puzzle glue. Once it’s done, you put it on the top and it dries clear in between the pieces, basically binding them so that you can move it around, frame it and display it.”

15:19 – “Back to that box, I was like, all right, we’ve got to do it differently. How are we displaying this? How can I create more of an experience in presenting the puzzle and imagined an upright box, kind of a nod to like a museum of pedestal shape, square, white, very thick. You know, somebody called us the Apple because of that very thick white materials. And then everything’s reusable, didn’t want to use plastic so the pieces come in a glass jar with a cork lid, the tube of puzzle glue, a straight-edge tool to [apply the glue].”

18:00 – “The things that did give me confidence were a bit more, not necessarily proof of concept for Jiggy but just kind of more macro trends, I think seeing the adult coloring books and a lot of DIY kind of crafting Pinterest. I was like, ‘All right, I don’t have a direct comp, but I feel like these indicate an appetite.’ There was a lot of conversation around ‘millennials are the burnout generation,’ was one headline. And so I was like, all right, I think there’s enough here that I can pull it together in this new way that would give me conviction. And then really just talking about it with people, telling friends and family, I’m a solo founder so doing it alone, I needed people to reflect back to me, excitement or support for it, to give me more energy to keep going.”

20:52 – “Timing helped. So I launched beginning of November so going straight into holidays, which is not only just peak purchasing time anyway, but also for puzzles specifically. A lot of people have associations of they do one around the table with their family at Thanksgiving or Christmas. A lot of gifting, especially because we positioned Jiggy as more premium and the presentation and packaging, the percentage going to the artist, it is at a higher price point than other puzzles but very gift-able.”

21:50 – “Everyone who had seen me this whole year, they’re like, ‘You’ve been thinking about starting a puzzle company for five and a half years, and you ended up doing it four months before COVID.’ So it was crazy timing, it brought a lot of demand, it also brought a lot of supply chain and freight, and everything, got more complicated and more expensive…so it was a mixed bag.”

23:31 – “I started going to art fairs and shows and curating; not all art is going to make a great puzzle, there needs to be enough color and detail and layers and saturation for it to be fun. We have put out a couple with like large areas of one color or more kind of gradient, and so when people are up for a challenge, those can be fun. But for the most part, I tried to look at all the art in the lens of would this be fun to puzzle and will it look cool when it’s all complete and ready to glue and frame?…There was a lot of excitement for it. I think especially artists who wanted their work to be engaged with and interacted with and not just viewed, but the idea of a puzzler almost like co-creating with them and having a hand in putting it together…Those first couple of collections I curated and then after that, and since we’ve been live and gotten some press, we have a lot of artists reaching out to us, so we have like an open submission process as well.”

26:25 – “It was one of those doom moments of ‘There’s so much demand. This is our window.’ And friends would be like, ‘Oh, it’s a good problem to have, you’re sold out, good for you.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I guess.’ But also it would keep me up at night, like, ‘This is the window of opportunity. There is attention and demand for this product and I have nothing to sell. I’m sold out.’ We rushed back into production, but between production time and freight, it was going to be two months.”

One Of A Kind Art Puzzles

*27:28 – “COVID hits and everything’s closed and cancelled, no one’s commissioning art and there weren’t really marketplaces for them to sell their work. So we have demand, but no product. They have lost a lot of ways to support themselves. And so what I was able to get quickly just off the shelf were blank puzzles. So the pieces were cut, but there was nothing printed on them. And so I drove around New York, rented a car and distributed these blank puzzles to our local artists, and they hand-painted and drew on them and created literal, one of a kind, art puzzles. And then we hosted an art auction and the proceeds were split between the artist and COVID fundraising efforts in New York City. And it ended up being a really special campaign. And the artists had so much fun with that. It was so cool to just see them painting on this raw puzzle. We got some good press around it and ultimately it was kind of the gap campaign that we ran until we were able to restock product and start selling again.”

29:38 – “We got one New York-based, old-school, 80s graffiti artist to spray paint on one of these puzzles. And his art typically is on walls in the wild. There’s no way to own it. And so one of his fans from Australia kept bidding up and ultimately got it for like $4500 and said, ‘I’ve never had a chance to own a piece of Futura’s work.’ And so that was very cool. And we kind of position, with the products that we manufacture, like puzzles as art, and art on puzzles. And can the puzzle be a vehicle to display this art? And so this was kind of taking that another step, the next version/iteration of that idea to literally put original art on a puzzle.”

31:10 – [On being on Shark Tank] “It turns out about a third of the companies that go on the show are scouted so they have producers out there looking for new brands all the time. And so they contacted me actually pretty soon after launch and before COVID, I think it was end of January–February 2020. And I wasn’t sure, I was like, ‘I have so much going on. I’m a solo founder. I know it’s a huge opportunity, also a huge time investment, and I’m just kind of sprinting’ and then COVID hit and we sold out and I was like, ‘All right, this might actually be such an opportunity I can’t pass up,’ in terms of, one, the platform and the visibility and, if there’s more attention on puzzles, that this could reach millions of more potential customers, then that seems like good use of my time.”

34:03 – “The Shark Tank viewer base is so supportive and really wants these companies to succeed and cheer you on. So that was great. And then, a lot of other people watch the show like partners, retailers, other investors. And so just the kind of tangential opportunities and things that the show brings was very cool. So it definitely kind of set us up on a different path.”

36:29 – “Some days I wish I would have had a co-founder or if I start another company I might do it differently. And so there are days that it can be totally just lonely, overwhelming. And the idea of having somebody in it with me – if I didn’t get it through a co-founder, then an investor, a partner, who could help actually scale the business and flatten my learning curve and just be someone alongside me in this journey.”

40:52 – [On what helped with getting artists from different countries] “Definitely opening up our submission – we have these quarterly like open call for arts and get a ton of inbound. And then I just always no matter where I am, what I’m doing, always have my eyes open. So found a lot more artists just on Instagram or through collaborations they did prior. And so I always have that lens and really wanted to make sure – right now we have an aesthetic, we have a certain style, but I wanted to make sure that that there was enough not only diversity/representation in the art itself, but of the artists’ backgrounds.”

42:07 – “I also wanted different diversity in just the materials that they use because it gives such a unique experience. We have one who is an oil painter and so, you know, obviously it’s 2D, it’s printed, but like you can see the brushstrokes in the art.”

42:52 – “We’re working on more of essentially like a platform marketplace. We have so many artists we want to work with, but the model right now is that we release six a collection, six designs at a time. And so on the artist side, it’s just we can’t possibly work with everyone we want to doing six at a time. And on the customer side, a new collection drops, they’re excited, come on, pick the one or two that they like best and then there’s nothing new until the next collection next quarter. So the idea for the marketplace is to enable artists to come on, select three pieces of their work, upload and essentially create their mini puzzle shop that we power and can work with a ton more artists and bring in a lot more designs because we have requests for more abstract and photography and aesthetics that we’re not currently covering. So I’m very excited about that which is coming in September [2022].”

46:55 – “The piece of advice that I got and did not follow were: One, to kind of keep things close to the vest and to stealth mode. And as I kind of mentioned, it was so important for me early on to share the idea and to get feedback and to help hone it and to get energy from it. If you have real IP issues or trade secrets, okay, keep those close to the vest. But I think people have ideas that that they’re unwilling to share and I actually think that that can be the first step sometimes of just, talk people’s ears off about it. Share the idea. Who knows what introduction it’ll lead to or new idea or a way it’ll hone. So I think once that seedling has started, the ideas incepted, to start sharing it and iterating on it. And I do think there’s a lot of people with ideas that I wish and would love to see start smaller, sooner, scrappier.”

49:19 – “What I’m really excited about is this studio – it’s called Jiggy Studios – this is the marketplace where artists can come and share their work that we will turn into an amazing hustle for you. And also, any New Yorkers, we’re going to be at the Union Square holiday market this holiday season so come visit us. I’ll be in and out, but we’d love to meet people there. And then we also just launched Jiggy Junior, which is our kids line. So any families or people in need of a distraction for their kids. We have the same model we sourced from emerging artists and put their work on smaller 100-piece kids puzzles.”

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